The Magistrates Court is the first tier of the criminal justice system, where the vast majority (over 90%) of criminal cases are disposed of. All criminal cases start in the Magistrates Court and only the most serious offences are transferred to the Crown Court. There are around 300 Magistrates Courts in England and Wales. Traditionally magistrates were lay volunteers who are unpaid and unqualified and most still are, however, nowadays some courts employ District Judges who are paid, qualified lawyers. This is most common in London. Magistrates are also known as justices of the peace.
Lay magistrates rely on their justice’s clerks who are qualified barristers or solicitors and are present at hearings to advice on matters of law and procedure.
Magistrates are appointed by the Lord Chancellor and most people between the ages of 21 and 65 who live or work within 15 miles of the Commission area to which they are appointed can apply to be a Magistrate. There is no salary but magistrates can claim expenses and loss of earnings for the time they spend in court.
The following are not eligible to become magistrates:
- People with criminal convictions
- People who have been banned from driving in the last 5 to 10 years
- Undischarged bankrupts
- Members of the armed forces
- Police officers and traffic wardens
Candidates should have the following qualities:
- good character;
- understanding and communication skills;
- social awareness;
- maturity and sound temperament;
- sound judgment;
- commitment and reliability; and
- they should be prepared to sit at least 26 times (and preferably 35 times) per year.
Training is required to be a magistrate, it will add up to about 18 hours, or 3 full days, as well as a few additional meetings. New Magistrates have to achieve four basic competencies:
- an applied understanding of the framework within which magistrates operate;
- an ability to follow basic law and procedure;
- an ability to think and act judicially; and
- an ability to work as an effective member of a team.
Magistrates are appraised during their first two years to check that they have acquired the competencies. Retirement age is 70 and they can be removed by the Lord Chancellor for failure to carry out their duties or misconduct.
In most cases, three magistrates sit on the bench. The magistrate sitting in the middle is called the ‘Chair’ and has control over the proceedings.
In some areas, the large number of cases tried in the Magistrates Courts make it necessary to have professional judges working full time. District Judges are solicitors or barristers of at least seven years’ standing, appointed on the advice of the Lord Chancellor. They are paid by their local authority and retirement age is 70 but some stay till 72. Unlike lay magistrates, District Judges usually sit alone.
The Clerk is a qualified lawyer who advises the magistrates on procedure and points of law and on the available penalties and the criteria for their use. The Clerk sits beneath the bench. Clerks also perform administrative work such as scheduling hearings, conducting means enquiries, preparing information, issuing summonses and warrants granted and collecting fines. A Clerk must be a barrister or solicitor of at least five years’ standing. Some of these tasks may be delegate to assistant clerks.
Fines officers are court staff authorised to enforce fines. Many decisions that used to require a hearing are now dealt with by the fines officers.
There is a solicitor or barrister representing the defendant and another solicitor or barrister for the prosecution, both sit in front of the Clerk.
The Magistrates Court jurisdiction is mostly criminal, however, it also has limited civil jurisdiction.
The Magistrates Courts try and dispose of all summary offences which make up the vast majority of criminal offences. Additionally, some more serious offences known as ‘hybrid’ or ‘either way’ can also by tried by magistrates. The most serious offences must be tried by jury in the Crown Court, however, Crown Court trials can only take place once magistrates have held a preliminary examination to determine whether there is enough evidence against the accused to proceed with a jury trial, this means all criminal trials start in the Magistrates Court.
See criminal offences: trial and jurisdiction
for more information about the various types of offences and how they are tried in court.
Magistrates Courts deal with applications and proceedings for care and supervision orders of children (under 18s).
- Care orders are made when children are considered to be at risk or harm or not receiving appropriate care from their parents. Care orders transfer responsibility to the local authority to find suitable accommodation for and support the child; this situation is commonly referred to as ‘being in care’.
- Supervision orders allow local authorities to use social workers to supervise the care of the child without removing them from their parents’ home.
- Education supervision orders are made on request of local education authorities when children are not receiving appropriate full time education.
When children (10 to 13 years old) and young persons (14 to 17 years old) commit a criminal offence, cases are heard by magistrates sitting as a Youth Court. Youth Courts are subject to different rules from hearings involving adults. The hearings are always private and they must take place either in a different building or room from regular hearings or on a different day. There is a special panel of magistrates specialising in youth cases and at least one of the three magistrates must be a woman.
The court may impose the following penalties to young offenders:
- a fine;
- a community order or probation order;
- a curfew order;
- a supervision order;
- an attendance centre order; or
- for more serious offences, detention in a young offenders institution .
Magistrates Courts also deals with domestic proceedings. These are held in private, with only the parties involved and their legal representatives and witnesses present.
Domestic proceedings include:
- maintenance and child support payments;
- visitation rights;
- injunctions; and
- non-molestation orders in domestic violence cases.
In addition financial penalties for criminal offences (fines), Magistrates Courts can also impose compensation orders which are a simple way for victims of a criminal act to obtain redress without having to issue proceedings in the County Court. Compensation orders are made in criminal damage and theft cases. While fines are punitive in nature, intended as both a punishment for a crime and a deterrent against future offences, compensation orders are similar to damages awarded by the civil courts as redress for losses incurred. They are paid to the victim(s) rather than the court.
See court fines and financial penalties
Council tax recovery
Local authorities can apply for a liability order to be made against someone who hasn’t paid their council tax. A liability order allows enforcement of the debt in various ways:
- Attachment of earnings. Getting your employer to make deductions from your wages if you are employed. See attachment of earnings for more information.
- Deductions from benefits. The council can get the DWP to make deductions from benefits such as Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA), Employment Support Allowance (ESA), Pension Credit or Income Support.
- Bailiffs. The council can send bailiffs to your home to seize goods to be sold. See bailiffs for more information.
- Bankruptcy. If your debt is over £5,000, the council could petition your bankruptcy. This may include arrears from several years. See bankruptcy for more information.
- Charging order. The council could apply for a charge on your property to secure the debt on your home if you own it and the debt is over £1,000. This doesn’t happen often. See charging orders for more information.
See council tax
for more information.